What to Wear to a Successful PhD Thesis Defense? A Skirt’s Worth of Academic Rejection Letters

Some people are paralyzed by rejection.

Others, like Michigan State University’s Earth and Environmental Sciences PhD candidate, Caitlin Kirby, sport rejection like a mantle of honor... or more accurately, a pleated skirt falling to just below mid-thigh.

"Successfully defended my PhD dissertation today!" Kirby wrote in a Tweet that has since garnered over 25,000 likes. "In the spirit of acknowledging & normalizing failure in the process, I defended in a skirt made of rejection letters from the course of my PhD."

The custom garment, which Kirby teamed with a dark blazer and red waistband, was organized in two tiers, with a tulle ruffle peeping out beneath.

MSU’s Career Services Network’s Director of Employer Relations, Karin Hanson, told the Lansing State Journal that rejection comes as a shock to many high achieving MSU students.

Kirby’s decision to upcycle 17 disappointing letters received over the course of her academic career was partially inspired by a Parks and Recreation episode in which the skirt of Leslie Knope's wedding dress is a wearable collage of newspaper articles about the character, drawn from earlier episodes

More to the point, Kirby’s skirt is part of an ongoing campaign to acknowledge rejection as a necessary, if painful, part of academic growth.

The whole process of revisiting those old letters and making that skirt sort of reminded me that you have to apply to a lot of things to succeed. It seems counterintuitive to wear your rejections to your last test in your Ph.D, but we talked about our rejections every week and I wanted them to be a part of it.

And, as she later noted in a tweet:

Acceptances and rejections are often based on the traditional values of academia, which excludes POC by not valuing the approaches, research questions, and experiences that POC tend to bring to their work.

Kirby’s letters were culled from a variety of sources—scholarship applications, submissions to academic journals, and proposals for conference presentations.  Unfortunately and We regret to inform you are recurrent motifs. About 8 letters were left on the cutting room floor.

But she is prepared to lower her hemline, when she starts applying for jobs, following a stint at the Research Institute for Urban and Regional Development in Dortmund, Germany, the result of a successful Fulbright application.

Follow Kirby’s example and turn your temporary setbacks into a power skirt, using the tutorial above.

via Boing Boing 

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, December 9 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, resurrects Dennison’s Christmas Book (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Women Scientists Launch a Database Featuring the Work of 9,000 Women Working in the Sciences

“Why are there so few women in science?” has almost become a tiresome refrain over the years, given how little the answers engage with the thousands of female scientists working all over the world. “Too often,” writes the project 500 Women Scientists, “high-profile articles, conference panels, and boards are filled with a disproportionate number of male voices. News stories are reported by more men by a huge margin, and this imbalance is reflected in how frequently women are quoted in news stories unless journalists make a conscious effort to reach out.

“Most keynote speakers at conferences are men. Panels are so frequently all-male that a new word evolved to describe the phenomenon: manels. These imbalances add up and reinforce the inaccurate perception that science is stale, pale and male.” The next time the question arises—“why are there so few women in science?”—or any other question needing scientific expertise, one need only gesture silently to 500 Women Scientists, a grassroots organization consisting of far more scientists than its title suggests.




Described as “a resource for journalists, educators, policy makers, scientists and anyone needing scientific expertise,” the project began in 2016 as an open letter penned by its founders, then graduate students at Colorado University, Boulder, who decided to re-affirm their values against reactionary attacks by amassing 500 signatures on an open letter. They’ve since built a searchable database of over 9,000 women researchers from around the world, and a resource that helps build local scientific communities.

Since launching last year, their Request a Scientist database has shown “the excuse that you can’t find a qualified woman just doesn't hold,” says co-founder and microbial ecologist Dr. Kelly Ramirez-Donders. It has also provided much more detailed data on women in science, which was published in a paper at PLOS Biology in April. “The group has ambitious plans to keep expanding its reach,” writes STAT. “They’re raising money to start a fellowship for women of color… and they have already launched an affiliate group, 500 Women in Medicine.”

“We’re scientists. We’re lovers of evidence and data points,” says co-founder Maryam Zaringhalam, a molecular biologist. “And so now anytime somebody tells us they couldn’t find someone or there just aren’t enough women in STEM fields, we can point them to [the database] and say, ‘Well, actually, this is the tip of the iceberg, and there’s over 8,000.’… ensuring that women’s voices are represented in the media narratives is really essential for showing that, ‘No, we are here, it’s just that people haven’t necessarily been aware of us or done the work to find us.’”

Correcting misperceptions not only helps reduce biases within scientific communities; it also encourages budding scientists who might otherwise be discouraged from the pursuit. “It’s not that girls are not interested in science,” co-founder Jane Zelikova tells Good Morning America. “Something happens where they don’t see women or girls represented as scientists and they don’t think it’s for them.” 500 Women in Science proves that notion wrong—science is for them, and for everyone who wants to devote their lives to scientific research. Just look at the data.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Discover the Persian 11th Century Canon of Medicine, “The Most Famous Medical Textbook Ever Written”

It may never lend a catchy title to a steamy TV hospital drama, but Avicenna’s 11th-century Canon of Medicine has the distinction of being “the most famous medical textbook ever written.” It has remained, as William Osler wrote in a 1918 Yale lecture, “a medical bible for a longer time than any other work.” Completed in 1025, the compendium drew Greek, Roman, Arabic, Indian, and Chinese medical science together in five dense volumes of material informed by the theories of Galen and structured by the systematic philosophy of Aristotle, whom Avicenna (Abū-ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn-ʿAbdallāh Ibn-Sīnā) called “The First Teacher.”

Translated into Latin in the 12th century and “often revised,” the Canon, notes the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “formed the basis of medical instruction in European Universities until the 17th century.” A copy of excerpts from the text has even been found translated into 15th-century Irish, demonstrating a link between medieval Ireland and the Islamic world. Avicenna’s influence generally on the intellectual culture of medieval and early modern Europe and the Arab-speaking world can hardly be overstated.




Born in 980 A.D., the Persian philosopher and physician was instrumental in the recovery of Hellenic thought, first in the Islamic world, then later in Europe. He took to the study of medicine very early in his extraordinary career. “I became proficient in it in the shortest time,” he says, “until the excellent scholars of medicine began to study under me.” He also became a practicing physician, inspired by a desire to put his learning to the test. “Through my experiences I acquired an amazing practical knowledge and ability in methods of treatment.”

The practical knowledge in The Canon of Medicine was largely the basis for its continued use for centuries. It lays out rules for drug testing, which include an insistence on human trials and the importance of conducting multiple experiments and showing consistent results across cases. Like most classical scientific texts, it weaves empirical observation with metaphysics, theology, scholastic speculation, and cultural biases particular to its time and place. But the practical outlines of its medical knowledge transcend its archaisms.

The work presents “an integrated view of surgery and medicine,” notes the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. In addition to his imminently useful guide for assessing the effects of drugs, Ibn Sina tells his readers “how to judge the margin of healthy tissue to remove with an amputation,” an intervention that has saved countless numbers of lives. “The enduring respect in the 21st century for a book written a millennium earlier is testimony to Ibn Sina’s achievement.”

One of the defining features of the text is its insistence on the practice of medicine as a systematic scientific pursuit of equal merit to the theorizing of it:

Someone might say to us that medicine is divided into theoretical and practical parts and that, by calling it a science, we have considered it as being all theoretical. To this we respond by saying that some arts and philosophy have theoretical and practical parts, and medicine, too, has its theoretical and practical parts. The division into theoretical and practical parts differs from case to case, but we need not discuss these divisions in disciplines other than medicine. If it is said that some parts of medicine are theoretical and other parts are practical, this does not mean that one part teaches medicine and the other puts it into practice – as many researchers in this subject believe. One should be aware that the intention is something else: it is that both parts of medicine are science, but one part is the science dealing with the principles of medicine, and the other with how to put those principles into practice.

Of course, much of the medical theory in the Canon has been disproven, but it remains of keen interest to students of the history of medicine and of European and Islamic intellectual cultural history more generally. Avicenna towers above his contemporaries, yet his work also bears witness to the larger “intellectual climate of his time,” as the site Medical History Tour points out. He emerged from a milieu “shaped by centuries of translation and cross-cultural scholarship” of Greek, Roman, Indian, Chinese, Persian, and Arabic literature. “A rich Persian medical tradition began 200 years before Avicenna.”

Nonetheless, “however the world came by the genius of Avicenna, his influence was lasting,” with The Canon of Medicine remaining a definitive “best practices” guide to medicine for centuries after its composition. See full scans of several Arabic copies of the text at the Library of Congress’s World Digital Library and read a full English translation of the massive 5-volume work, with its extensive chapters on definitions, anatomy, etiology, and treatments, at the Internet Archive.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Chill Out to 70 Hours of Oceanscape Nature Videos Filmed by BBC Earth

Those who harbor a deep-seated fear of the water may want to look for other methods of stress relief than BBC Earth’s relaxing 10-hour video loops, but everyone else is encouraged to take a dip in these stunning natural worlds, presented without commentary or background music.

All seven 10-hour playlists are salt-water based: coral reefscoastlinesdeep oceanopen ocean, frozen seasocean surfaces, and sea forests.

As in most compelling nature documentaries, non-human creatures loom large, but unlike such BBC Earth offerings as Creepiest Insect Moments or Ants Attack Termite Mounds, there’s a benign, live-and-let-live vibe to the proceedings.




Unsurprisingly, the photography is breathtaking, and the uses of these marathon-length portraits are manifold: meditation tool, sleep aid, child soother, social media decompressor, travelogue, and—less calmingly—call to action.

Science tells us that many of these life forms, and the ocean in which they dwell, are in serious danger, thanks to decades of human disregard for the environment. This is an opportunity to immerse ourselves in what we stand to lose while it’s still possible to do something about it.

If that thought seems too depressing, there’s also strong scientific evidence that nature documentaries such as these promote increased feelings of wellbeing

What are you waiting for?

Click here to travel the oceans with polar bears, jellyfish, dolphins, seahorses, brightly colored tropical fish and other creatures of the deep, compliments of BBC’s Earth’s Oceanscapes playlists.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, November 4 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Louise Jordan Miln’s “Wooings and Weddings in Many Climes (1900). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watching Nature Documentaries Can Produce “Real Happiness,” Finds a Study from the BBC and UC-Berkeley

Hollywood science fiction films imagine future humans in worlds that are no longer green, or never were—from Soylent Green’s dying Earth to that of Interstellar. And from Soylent Green to Ad Astra, humans in the future experience plant and animal life as simulations on a screen, in hyperreal photography and video meant to pacify and comfort. Maybe we live in that world already, to some extent, with apocalyptic films and science fiction expressing a collective mourning for the extinctions brought on by climate change.

“Over the course of my lifetime—I’m 46,” writes Washington Post art critic Sebastian Smee, “the planet has lost more than half of its wildlife populations, according to the World Wildlife Fund.” Surely this brute fact explains the immense popularity of high production-value nature documentaries, the antidote to apocalyptic futurism. They have become “blockbuster events,” argues Ed Yong at The Atlantic, with fandoms as fierce as any.




Viewed “from the perspective of the future,” writes Smee, nature documentaries “are great art. Maybe the greatest of our time.” But can viewing film and photographs of nature produce in us the feelings of awe and wonder that poets, artists, and philosophers have described feeling in actual nature for centuries? BBC Earth, producer of several major blockbuster nature documentary series, undertook some psychological research to find out, partnering with researchers from the University of California, Berkeley.

The team examined the effects of watching the BBC’s Planet Earth II documentary series relative to other kinds of programs. “It is a deep human intuition that viewing nature and being in nature is good for the mind and body,” they write in the study, titled “Exploring the Emotional State of ‘Real Happiness.’” (Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson coined the term “biophilia” to describe the evolved preference for natural beauty.) Does screentime equal physical time spent outdoors? Not exactly, but nature documentaries can lower stress levels and, yes, produce feelings of "real happiness."

There have been several previous such studies. The authors cite one in which a few minutes of the original series Planet Earth “led people, compared to control participants, to feel 45.6% more awe and 31.4% more gratitude, but no shifts in feelings of negative emotions such as fear and sadness.” The Planet Earth II study may be the largest of its kind, with almost 3,500 participants in the U.S., around a thousand in the U.K., India, and Australia, each, and around 500 in both South Africa and Singapore for a total of approximately 7,500 viewers.

Participants across a range of age groups, from 16 to 55 and over, were shown short clips of a variety of TV programs, including clips from Planet Earth II. They were surveyed on an array of emotional responses before and after each viewing. The study also measured stress levels using the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), and used a facial mapping technology called CrowdEmotion to track physical responses. The researchers aggregated the data and controlled for population size in each country.

The findings are fascinating. Across the scale, Planet Earth II clips generated more feelings of happiness and awe, with clips from news and entertainment shows causing more fear. In most of the study’s measures, these good feelings peaked highest at the lower demographic age range of 16-24. Younger viewers showed greater positive emotional responses in facial mapping and survey data, a fact consistent with BBC ratings data showing that 16-34 year-olds make up around 41% of the audience share for Planet Earth II.

“This younger group,” note the authors, “was more likely to experience significant positive shifts in emotion.” They also started out, before viewing the clips, with significantly more environmental anxiety, scoring highly on the stress scale. 71% described themselves as “extremely worried about the state of the world’s environment and what it will mean for my future.” A smaller percentage showed the lowest level of agreement with the statement “I regularly get outside and enjoy spending time with nature.”

For nearly all of the study’s viewers, nature documentaries seemed to produce at least fleeting feelings of “real happiness.” For many, they may also be a way of countering fears of the future, and compensating in advance for a loss of the natural beauty that remains. Unfortunately, the study did not measure the number of participants who viewed Planet Earth II and other “blockbuster” nature documentaries as a call to action against environmental destruction. Maybe that's a subject for another study. Read the full Planet Earth II study results here. And if you're feeling stressed, watch thirty minutes of "Visual Soundscapes," presented by Planet Earth II, above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Novelist Cormac McCarthy Gives Writing Advice to Scientists … and Anyone Who Wants to Write Clear, Compelling Prose

As we pointed out back in 2017, Cormac McCarthy, author of such gritty, blood-drenched novels as Blood Meridian, Child of God, The Road, and No Country for Old Men, prefers the company of scientists to fellow writers. Since the mid-nineties, he has maintained a desk at the Santa Fe Institute, an interdisciplinary scientific think tank, and has served as a volunteer copy-editor for several scientists, including Lisa Randall, Harvard’s first female tenured theoretical physicist, and physicist Geoffrey West, author of the popular science book Scale.

One of McCarthy's first such academic collaborations came after a friend, economist W. Brian Arthur, mailed him an article in 1996. McCarthy helped Arthur completely revise it, which sent the editor of the Harvard Business Review into a “slight panic,” the economist remembers. I can’t imagine why, but then I’d rather read any of McCarthy’s novels than most academic papers. Not that I don’t love to be exposed to new ideas, but it’s all about the quality of the writing.




Scholarly writing has, after all, a reputation for obscurity, and obfuscation for a reason, and not only in postmodern philosophy. Scientific papers also rely heavily on jargon, overly long, incomprehensible sentences, and disciplinary formalities that can feel cold and alienating to the non-specialist. McCarthy identified these problems in the work of associates like biologist and ecologist Van Savage, who has “received invaluable editing advice from McCarthy,” notes Nature, “on several science papers published over the past 20 years.”

During “lively weekly lunches” with the author during the winter of 2018, Savage discussed the finer points of McCarthy’s editing advice. Then Savage and evolutionary biologist Pamela Yeh presented the condensed version at Nature for a wider audience. Below, we’ve excerpted some of the most striking of “McCarthy’s words of wisdom.” Find the complete compilation of McCarthy’s advice over at Nature.

  • Use minimalism to achieve clarity…. Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.
  • Decide on your paper’s theme and two or three points you want every reader to remember…. If something isn’t needed to help the reader to understand the main theme, omit it.
  • Limit each paragraph to a single message.
  • Keep sentences short, simply constructed and direct.
  • Try to avoid jargon, buzzwords or overly technical language. And don’t use the same word repeatedly—it’s boring.
  • Don’t over-elaborate. Only use an adjective if it’s relevant…. Don’t say the same thing in three different ways in any single section.
  • Choose concrete language and examples.
  • When you think you’re done, read your work aloud to yourself or a friend. Find a good editor you can trust and who will spend real time and thought on your work.
  • Finally, try to write the best version of your paper—the one that you like. You can’t please an anonymous reader, but you should be able to please yourself.
  • When you make your writing more lively and easier to understand, people will want to invest their time in reading your work.

As Kottke points out, “most of this is good advice for writing in general.” This is hardly a surprise given the source, though, as McCarthy’s primary body of work demonstrates, literary writers are free to tread all over these guidelines as long as they can get away with it. Still, his straightforward advice is an invitation for writers of all kinds—academic, popular, aspiring, and professional—to remind themselves of the fundamental principles of clear, compelling communicative prose.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Bob Odenkirk & Errol Morris Create Comedic Shorts to Help You Take Action Against Global Warming: Watch Them Online

My beach house must be somewhere around here. I used to be able to see the ocean from it. I should be able to see it from the ocean. Ooo, that looks familiar. Lady Liberty. Ha ha! Hellooo! All the best to you.     —Admiral Horatio Horntower

Are there any Better Call Saul fans among the global warming deniers?

A scenario in which one can simultaneously pooh pooh the melting of the polar ice caps and embrace The Thin Blue Line?

Director Errol Morris and his star, Bob Odenkirk, may not change any minds with their Global Meltdown spots they produced in partnership with the Institute for the Future, but hopefully the emphatic end cards will stir some fans to action.

The absurdist 30-second shorts feature Odenkirk, encrusted in epaulets and naval insignia, as the fictional Horntower, “an admiral of a fleet of one and perhaps the last man on Earth.” Marooned on a small block of ice, he rails against the inexpertly animated wildlife encroaching on his domain.

(“You don’t even have the facility of language!” he tells a penguin, and later threatens a walrus that it will “get painted out” of the final cut for “complaining all the time…”)

Certainly a documentarian of Morris’ stature could have taken a lengthier, more serious approach to the subject, but as he notes:

Logic rarely convinces anybody of anything. Climate change has become yet another vehicle for political polarization. If Al Gore said the Earth was round there would be political opposition insisting that the Earth was flat. It’s all so preposterous, so contemptible.

Odenkirk also has some out-of-uniform concerns about climate change, as expressed in "Where I Got These Abs," a 2011 Shouts & Murmurs piece for The New Yorker:

The middle ab on the left (not my left, your left, if you are looking at me) is called Terrence. It’s a dignified ab. It tenses each time I read an op-ed article about global warming. The article’s point of view is immaterial; simply being reminded that I can do nothing to stop the horrific future of floods and catastrophe gives this ab a taut yank that lingers, burning calories in my well-creased forehead at the same time. 

Watch all of Morris and Odenkirk’s Admiral Horntower spots, currently totaling nine, with ten more to come, on Global Meltdown's YouTube channel.

via Kottke

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC this Monday, September 9 for the new season’s kickoff of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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